For Raju

Yesterday, when I read the news, I thought of Raju.

Raju lived with him parents in the shanty just beyond the high walls surrounding the house where I grew up. His father leased a rickshaw; his mother was a maidservant.

Raju had five siblings, and I could have only told them apart by height when they were kids, over a decade ago. In fact, I only vaguely remember Raju’s brothers and sisters. They all came to play cricket in the galli with a ball made of plastic and rubber-band; and a bat made of a splintery wooden plank. Raju did not play cricket. He did not chase after kites like the other boys did, after they had been cut loose. He did not chase the barafgoli-wala in the torrid summer months. But he was always there. Of all the kids that played on the dusty streets, I still remember Raju the most.

It was not that Raju did not want to do all of these things. I imagine from Raju’s wistful expressions that he wanted to run in like Wasim Akram and bowl out all the other boys and that he wanted to show everyone how many kites he spotted and plucked from tree-branches.  It was that he was different. The other boys were always patient with him, never saying a mean word or growing impatient as Raju willed himself through dirt, mud, and dung on the streets on the strength of his arms – his legs too weak from childhood polio to support even the weight of his gaunt frame.

How ironic that the son of a rickshaw puller, who carried able-bodied children in bright colored uniforms and their corpulent parents, could only drag himself with his hands! How cruel that the son of a maidservant, who washed dishes and swept floors in houses of those who could physically do these chores themselves but had enough money not to – would need extra effort to fend for himself.

But this is not a patronizing story of how Raju defied the odds. It is not a tale of humiliations the Rajus of the world suffer in anger or resignation. I do not have the moral right to write that story. I live on the other side of a high-wall. The cards I was dealt were different- my parents were educated, well-off, and part of the Majority, and through an equation requiring a combination of these elements, well-respected in society. I prospered and when I have children they too will see the world with the asymmetry intact. What do I know about the struggles of the masses on the other side? What do I know about being crippled, poor, Muslim, and illiterate in the glorious Republic of India?

The last I heard of Raju was over a decade ago. I was about to leave for the United States to become a microbiologist. Raju’s father had somehow obtained a handcycle for him: using the monstrous contraption, Raju had carried himself with his hands over two miles to a Polio Prevention camp. He was not a doctor. He was not a philanthropist. He had no obligation to go. And yet he was there. He was there to tell parents, “Please make sure your child is vaccinated. You don’t want your son or daughter to turn out like me. This is important.

It is not often that I think of him, but yesterday, as I read a report that India had gone one year without a single case of polio, all I could think of was Raju.

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13 thoughts on “For Raju

  1. My college professor had polio. The cards she was dealt were different too; her family was well-off, she had made a career for herself, she was able to afford a house of her own, with help, and so on. She was diagnosed with cancer during my final year of college, and overcame that as well. By far one of the strongest and most incredible people I’ve ever met.
    Yes, that article made me think of her too.

  2. A few years back, I was part of an ad team that made the Pulse polio ads. The last one I worked on had a boy called Raja who generally mills around the booth, motivating people to get their children vaccinated and then you find out that he is walking with help of callipers….

    Perhaps its not entirely a coincidence that the creative sitting so far away just wrote out a similar story with another boy Raja?

  3. It is always the sons of rickshaw pullers and the hapless poor who sire the likes of Raju. Poverty and ignorance go hand in hand and form a lethally explosive compound. I had no option but to seek refuge in remote, godforsaken villages at one phase of my life some 40 years ago. People of Kalahandi (Odisha) were desperately poor, went without water for days together, were invariably frail from malnutrition and suffered all kinds of infection; but I didn’t see any polio there, though other observers had reported several cases once upon a time. Lodhasuli (Jhargram area, Bengal), the village that had given me shelter like no kinsmen would, had three misshapen childs and, perhaps, several in their mothers’ womb. The benign guberbatorial hand, reputed to be very long, hadn’t reached either village, neither did the information that there were free preventions available for small pox, cholera and polio.
    I sincerely hope that the recent drive has done a lot of good but I’ve grown up to disbelieve most statistics that say, “We are now 100% literate” or “Polio had claimed 700 odd victims in the last count but has now been been eradicated”. I’d rather wait and see.
    Many in my generation and all of those before mine never had been inoculated against polio. A relative of mine, an engineer, contracted polio from a tainted pond where he swam once during a weekend outing. That he could continue with his life and job was thanks to the money power that bought him the best treatment available, a comfortable wheelchair, and the fact that as a design man he didn’t need to be all that mobile.
    The real enemy of the third world, despite its recent economic claims, is poverty. Mahajans, politicians and the upper classes exploit their lack of means to keep them poor. The next biggest enemies are religion and illiteracy, imposed by the clever upper classes and perpetuate their poverty. Polio is, after all, a manageable disease; poverty has no easy cure!

    • That is a very well-thought out post. Thanks for sharing. I agree with your assessment. There is a very well-known joke about the bureaucracy in Bengal “miscalculating” the number of rhinos due to a gander/gondar translation error at the block level plus extrapolation. The 100% literacy in our state, when it first happened, was a complete farce (and I said this even as one who had not studied statistics at the time).

      With the polio eradication drive, I could not but help think of my father’s era and how he contracted smallpox. I heard stories about how debilitating a disease it was, and of the goddess Sitala, and all. One hopes that polio will be relegated to the history books too. But even so emerging diseases are a sobering thought. Who knows what diseases will be eradicated only to be replaced by the likes of HIV/AIDS, Marburg, and Ebola?

  4. I didn’t alltacuy make it to Priya, tucked in a residential neighborhood, until pretty late during my Cal days. Rather, we used to prefer the now defunct/semi-defunct theaters like Globe/Lighthouse/New Empire/Chaplin around Central Calcutta area and Nandan. But there is one thing we all used to eagerly wait for: the annual Calcutta Film Festival around November and we would all bunk classes for a week! After all these years, even when several time zones away, come November and many of us would start feeling something is amiss!

  5. At first, Aniruddha Sen set my teeth on edge when he wrote: “It is always the sons of rickshaw pullers and the hapless poor who sire the likes of Raju.” But then he went on to point out that his well-educated relative contracted polio and to make compassionate remarks about the inequalities of life. Truly this disease is no respecter of a victim’s station in society. In my generation of Americans most everyone knew at least one classmate who had to sit on the sidelines in their metal and leather braces while other children played sports, thanks to polio or cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. Cruel diseases strike children where they are most vulnerable, repressing their yearning to run and play. It was very encouraging to read that Raju offered his selfless service at a polio prevention camp and that his father did what he could to build a conveyance vehicle for him.
    Too bad, though, that Raju is probably not able to watch Nick Vujicic’s inspiring video No Arms, No Legs, No Worries! on YouTube. He would see a kindred spirit.

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